COLUMBUS, Ohio — Somewhere on an old flip phone stored away in case of emergency, I have a grainy 2005 photo of Thad Matta swimming against a sea of Ohio State fans.
The Buckeyes had just beaten No. 1-ranked and previously unbeaten Illinois on a Matt Sylvester 3-pointer with 5 seconds left. My dad had somehow scored tickets for the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s biggest game of the season.
That had previously been much easier to do.
I remember the way the student section swayed like it never had that entire Sunday afternoon as for one of the few times in its history, the Schottenstein Center provided a true home-court advantage. I remember chanting “air ball” at Dee Brown and being able to hear a pin drop as Fighting Illini forward Roger Powell attempted his would-be, but ill-fated game-winner as time expired.
And I remember my dad and I looking at each other and shrugging before deciding to rush the floor with the rest of the arena’s capacity crowd, where I snagged a high-five from Matta before snapping that photo of him on my silver flip phone.
I was 16 and had spent the better part of my life following Buckeyes basketball. At that point, I had seen a since-vacated Final Four run and watched some of the greatest players to ever suit up for the program.
I hadn’t, however, ever witnessed anything quite like this.
After the game, and in typical Matta fashion, the first-year Ohio State coach would joke (via The Associated Press), “I’d like to be the other team just one time. I’m living for the day I’m the No. 1 team and someone else is trying to do it to us.”
Matta’s wish would come true.
Sylvester’s shot served as a starting point for what would become the golden era of Buckeyes basketball. Over the next 12 years, Ohio State would win six Big Ten championships, qualify for nine NCAA Tournaments, twice make the Final Four and advance to the 2007 national championship game.
For 22 weeks of Matta’s tenure, the Buckeyes ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team.
The Matta era at Ohio State came to an end on Monday, although some would argue that already had happened well before the hastily called, but well-executed news conference announcing his firing. In many ways, Matta had become a victim of his own success.
“We need to get our program back to where he built it,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said.
Two years of having missed the NCAA Tournament had taken a toll, as had a four-year decline since the program’s most recent Elite Eight run. Perhaps most important, the recruiting results were no longer there. The Buckeyes and Matta had to part ways now or risk an uglier separation at the end of another disappointing season.
That didn’t make Monday any easier to stomach.
Perhaps he’s never been viewed as one because he’s never carried himself like one, but Matta was a living legend at Ohio State. What Joe Paterno was to Penn State and Bobby Bowden was to Florida State, Matta was to Buckeyes basketball, and yet, he was able to exit his job more gracefully than either of those two did.
In an era in which it became increasingly more challenging to do, Matta did things the right way — and he did them at a high rate. Prior to his arrival in Columbus, Ohio State was an afterthought for the nation’s top prospects. Under his watch, the Buckeyes became a destination school, luring Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., Daequan Cook, Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and D’Angelo Russell.
From 1988 to 2003, Ohio State saw five of its players picked in the NBA draft. Matta’s teams, meanwhile, produced 10 NBA draft picks, including eight first-round selections and four top-4 picks.
All that talent translated to unprecedented on-court success as Matta leaves the Buckeyes as the program’s all-time winningest coach. Sure, Fred Taylor still has Matta beat in Final Fours (four), Big Ten championships (seven) and national titles (one), but when you consider their respective eras and the expansion of the NCAA Tournament, Matta faced a much higher degree of difficulty.
Take, for instance, Matta’s two best teams, which each found themselves on the wrong side of March’s Madness. The 2007 Oden and Conley-led Buckeyes ran into a defending national champion in Florida team that returned all of its top talent from the year prior. In 2011, an Ohio State squad that never fell past No. 4 in the national rankings lost to Kentucky in the closing seconds of the Sweet 16.
But even if the best seasons under Matta ended in bitter defeat, that was preferable to the ambivalence most felt toward Buckeyes basketball in the years prior to his arrival.
As I’ve written and done radio interviews over the last 24 hours, it’s felt a little bit like I’ve been describing somebody dying. When I interviewed former Ohio State forward Sam Thompson on Monday, we even found ourselves referring to Matta in the past tense.
But when you consider what Matta has meant to Buckeyes basketball, that almost seems appropriate. The Matta era is over, and there’s no guarantee anything like it ever returns. Ohio State basketball isn’t Duke, Kentucky or Kansas — it sometimes needs help from elsewhere to reach its potential.
Matta made the most of his circumstances, using his recruiting prowess to take advantage of the one-and-done rule and an inconsistent Indiana program. In the process, he created some of the best seasons — and memories — in Buckeyes basketball history.
And although Matta wouldn’t reach the peak of his powers for a few more years, I keep coming back to that Sunday afternoon in 2005, when he picked up his first signature win at the school he’ll forever be linked to. Perhaps I didn’t know it when we rushed the court or when I took his picture. But Buckeyes basketball would never — and now, will never — be the same again.